04/07/2016 17:32 EDT | Updated 04/08/2017 01:12 EDT

Parental leave comes to America, slowly, with San Francisco leading the charge

Julia Parish's child would not be the first person to have a youthful anecdote about attending a political rally in San Francisco where the details are a little fuzzy.

The stories, however, rarely go like this.

This rally was about parental leave. Parish was there to celebrate as San Francisco lunged forward on an issue where some deem the U.S. a backwater.

It has become the first U.S. city to adopt full paid benefits for new parents, a cause on which Parish worked for years. A lawyer, she even helped draft part of the landmark city ordinance.

It came to fruition this week — just as she was about to give birth for the first time.

"Especially now I appreciate how vital it is for families," said the legal-aid attorney, who is  eight-and-a-half months pregnant.

"I feel really proud and lucky, now that other moms-to-be can have the benefits... No one (about to have a baby) should be worrying about paying their rent. They should be worrying about their new baby."

Parental leave could become a big issue in this year's presidential election. Both Democratic candidates are proposing 12 weeks of paid family leave for a country with a patchwork of lesser provisions.

The U.S. has by far the fewest protections for new parents among developed countries — lacking not only income assistance, but in many cases even the basic guarantee they won't be fired for missing work.

Exceptions exist. 

A 1993 bill provided 12 weeks of job security for employees at companies with more than 50 workers. Last year, federal workers were guaranteed 12 weeks of paid leave by President Barack Obama. A few cities and states have followed suit.

San Francisco has now gone the furthest.

Workers who pay into a state insurance program will get 100 per cent of their salary for six weeks — with 55 per cent already supplied by the state, and employers now being forced to pay the other 45 per cent. 

Some local businesses are fuming, saying they are already being forced to pay $15 minimum wages and higher-than-average taxes. Mark Dwight of the local small-business commission told the local CBS affiliate: "It's this constant piling on. It's the death of a thousand cuts."

In one way, the San Francisco policy is more generous than its counterpart in Canada, which is actually in the middle of the pack among OECD countries when it comes to two key metrics — time off for new parents and income support.

The federal government guarantees up to a year off — far more than San Francisco. But Canadian parents can't get more than 52 per cent of their salary, at a maximum of $537 a week. The salary cap is higher in Quebec.

It's far more generous in European countries. Some offer up to three years paid leave, or up to 100 per cent of salary. The U.S. is the biggest outlier — on OECD charts, a string of zeros shows up next to its name.

An economist who has studied the issue says the European model has its drawbacks. One involves companies being on the hook for these payments, not governments.

That can be an economic drag.

"When you're looking to hire somebody in Europe, not only is it impossible to ever fire that person but you're also on the hook for a lot of benefits," UBC's Kevin Milligan said in an interview.

"So employers consider carefully before they hire."

His research found significant effects as a result of Canada extending its benefits in 2000 — from six months to one year. He found little difference when it came to children's development.

But mothers who took leave spent up to 58 per cent more time not working in the first year of their children's lives. Breastfeeding increased too.

Many Americans would love having those options. Even in San Francisco, the new policy won't apply to everyone.

Parish describes one woman forced to quit her job at a bakery. And the dad who couldn't be there for his week-old baby's blood tests, while his wife struggled in recovery.

His towing company refused the time off. He'd already been given a week: "They thought they were being generous," said Parish, who hears such cases through her job at the Legal Aid Society.

"Everywhere else is so much better (at this) — including Canada," she said.

"A uniform national policy that applies to everyone (in the U.S. is our goal). But the reality of politics leads to working on a more local level."

Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press